Wednesday, 7 October 1998

Frank Herbert: The Dragon in the Sea (1956)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 130

Frank Herbert's first science fiction novel, set in about 2020 and written in 1956, today reads more like a contemporary thriller than science fiction, even though it is set in a somewhat different world to the real one. It is set during a length, drawn out nuclear war (it was written at a time when comparatively little was known and much less public about the effects of a nuclear attack). The West is running short of oil but cannot easily obtain it while the East controls much of the world's oceans; this is a war in which air power is virtually non-existent because of the lack of fuel. The Western military have come up with a daring plan to obtain oil: sending nuclear powered submarines underwater all the way to Eastern oilfields on their continental shelf, towing oil tanks into the Arctic coastal waters and drilling there to remove cargoes of oil. Putting it baldly like this makes it easier to see the technical difficulties which are skated over - and skilfully hidden from the reader - in the longer explanations in the novel itself.

After some initial success, things have begun to go wrong, until there have been twenty missions in a row that have failed. This is partly because the Easterners have to some extent caught on to what is going on, and partly because of infiltration of submarine bases and crews by carefully hidden sleepers, not yet active spies and saboteurs.

The hitherto most successful crew has been in port for some time. In their last mission, they lost one of their four-man team, the electronics officer. Now they are to go to sea again, with a new electronics officer who is a trained psychologist from security. He is there to investigate what makes this crew successful and to ensure that none of the others are sleepers.

The tense atmosphere of the submarine, underwater and completely isolated because of the need to keep radio silence, is well-portrayed. The issue of the importance of religion to the men on the ship is handled with particular interest and sensitivity. The beginning and end of the book, which take place ashore, are rather less immediately convincing.

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